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Three Components of Strengthening Programs

By Mike Bills, MS PT

What does the word ‘strength’ really mean? In order to fully understand how to develop a strengthening program appropriately, you first have to understand what is really meant by the word “strength.” The word itself actually has three distinct pieces to it. Each piece is just as important as the other and all three must come into play in order for a muscle to have what is considered “good strength”.

  1. How much weight can you lift? This means how much force a muscle can produce in one moment of time. For example, do you have the strength to lift that bag of groceries, bag of mulch, or get yourself up or down the stairs?
  2. How long can you do this for? This means how long can you hold that bag of groceries or the bag of mulch? Do you have the “strength” to hold or carry it for one minute, 10 minutes, etc.?
  3. How conditioned is the muscle to lift that weight? This refers to whether or not you can do this repetitively over a period of time. For example can you only do this one time or 20 times. Can you only climb one flight of stairs or five without taking a break?

These are all components of what makes a muscle strong. 

Why is strengthening important?

In order for joints and parts of your body to work properly, you need to have good control of the area. This control comes from having good strength of the muscles and tissues around that area. Let’s use your shoulder as an example. In order to pick up a 12-pound bag of groceries you need to have good strength in the muscles of your upper arm, forearm, hand, shoulder blade and your neck. This seems like a lot just to do one simple activity such as picking up that bag of groceries. So let’s say that someone has good strength in their upper arm muscles, their biceps but does not have the component of strength related to holding the bag while they carry it into the house from the car. Then this “lack of strength” in the forearm and hand starts to place undue stress on the muscles, tendons and other soft tissues in the forearm, wrist and hand because they have to compensate. This can set you up for injury to those muscles – most likely in the form of a tendonitis.

Let’s talk about strength in the muscles in your neck. This is why after you lift something heavy, the side of your neck may feel tight or sore because while the strength in your arms might have been enough, you did not have the strength in your neck muscles to support your shoulder and neck during the lift. They were missing the third (and possibly the most important) component, the conditioning level of the muscle to do this activity of lifting a bag of groceries.

Hopefully this example gives you a better sense of how important it is to have all three aspects of strength and why all three need to be included in a proper strengthening program. Often times, when people work on strengthening, they focus on large “movement muscles”.  These are the large muscles of your arms and legs like your biceps, quadriceps, etc. Yes, those muscles do need to be strong because they perform about 60% of the work to perform various activities. However, you cannot forget about the smaller stabilizing and supporting muscles because they do the other 40% of work associated with any movement.

Why is it important to also strengthen smaller stabilizing muscles?

To answer this question, let’s look at the action of going up or down stairs. Your quadriceps do about 60% of the work to actually lift you up or let you down the steps. However, there is a lot of other work that goes into getting you up or down those steps. For example, your hip muscles need to have the strength to make sure your knee stays in proper alignment with the rest of your leg as this ensures proper tracking of the knee cap. Your calf and hamstrings need to have the correct balance of strength with your quadriceps to provide the support the knee needs in a side to side fashion and thus only allow it to bend and straighten as you go up and down those stairs.  So while your quadriceps may have great strength when isolated out, the question is “do the muscles in your legs have the proper strength to get you up and down those stairs without the potential for injury or wear and tear on the joints in your leg?”

This all starts with knowing what muscles to work and how to work them correctly. The expert Physical Therapists at Loudoun Sports Therapy Center are here to get you properly started on a strengthening program that is right for you. One that will allow you to live life pain free and without the potential for injury both as you get started and as you progress. There are no other movement specialists out there that can ensure that. If you are having any kind of pain or difficulty moving, or if you want to just start an exercise program, we are here to help you get the results you desire and do it without risk of injury. Call our office TODAY at 703-450-4300.

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